Carly Rae Jepsen And The Rise Of The Micro Pop Star
As hip-hop and streaming change the power dynamics of musical celebrity, Jepsen and other artists making traditional pop have embraced a new kind of boutique stardom.
Last week Carly Rae Jepsen released Dedicated, her first album in four years. It’s a classic pop record: simple lyrics, pleasingly generic production, and swelling, sugary hooks. It’s the type of music you’ve heard a million times before but, when done well — as it often is on Dedicated — the type you love all the more for its cozy familiarity.
Dedicated, though, won’t be a chart topper. As of today, it sits at No. 12 on iTunes, and none of its songs are in Spotify’s Top 200. This should come as no surprise: Jepsen’s last full-length album, 2015’s Emotion, debuted at No. 16, and she hasn’t had a song chart on the Billboard Hot 100 since that album’s lead single, “I Really Like You,” stalled at No. 39.
None of this will matter a lick. Since the release of Emotion, now a beloved cult pop classic, Jepsen has emerged at the forefront of micro pop stardom, leading a wave of artists that also includes Charli XCX, Lizzo, Janelle Monae, Kacey Musgraves, Troye Sivan, and Kim Petras. This crew trades largely in classic, “pure” pop music; sometimes it’s got a country twang, as with Musgraves, or trends towards hip-hop, as with Monae and Lizzo. But what sets these artists apart in today’s broader music landscape is their dedication to the kind of inviting, melodic, stick-in-your-cranium earworms that made superstars of everyone from Michael Jackson to Taylor Swift.
Over the past few years, however, hip-hop’s growing domination of radio, streaming, and the charts has changed the power dynamics of celebrity in music. While a select few pop artists, namely Ariana Grande, have managed to break through to global superstardom by being authentically conversant with hip-hop, more have either abandoned or been deprived of traditional pop preeminence, instead becoming niche heroes. Unburdened from the pressure of churning out trendy radio singles and hitting album sales targets, performers like Jepsen have embraced an altogether different type of pop success, something quainter than the all-encompassing appeal their sound might have them pegged for.
These micro pop stars are supported by small but fiercely devoted fanbases, consisting largely of LGBT fans and the internet’s cool-kid Pitchfork crowd, keepers of traditional pop while it’s fallen out of favor with mainstream audiences. They release product idiosyncratically, often tour nonstop, and feed their faithful through social media. This boutique stardom has given artists like Jepsen the ability to make a living without needing to be all things to all people, or selling albums, or even being on the radio. And in a diversifying landscape where streaming and hip-hop rule and major breakthroughs are rare, this career model may signal what the future of pop success looks like for everyone else too.
As far as pop culture goes, 2015 might as well be the Stone Age. Barack Obama was in the White House, Snapchat was at the vanguard of social media, and the internet’s Great Debate was whether a dress was blue and black or white and gold.
The popular music of that year, too, seems like the product of a bygone era, miles way from the glum, demented coo of Billie Eilish or the moans of Post Malone that currently dominate playlists. In 2015, as it had for more or less the previous 35 years, classic pop by established superstars ruled. Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” were some of 2015’s biggest hits. Pop traditionalist Adele had the highest-selling album of the year, as Taylor Swift did the year before with 1989, an album that paid explicit homage to the genre’s 1980s peak. Pop was an institution, the norm, familiar as a style of music and in who performed it, and it felt entrenched as America’s most broadly enjoyed genre.
That ecosystem was absolutely primed to turn Carly Rae Jepsen — then known as the one-hit wonder behind 2012’s biggest song, “Call Me Maybe” — into a bona fide superstar. Emotion, released three years later, was a collection of 12 expertly crafted would-be radio smashes awash in the same ’80s fetishization which had powered “Uptown Funk” and 1989 into cultural phenomena.
Emotion’s pop classicism — shimmering, uncomplicated, major-key hook machines with abundantly relatable lyrics about love and lust — was executed with surgical precision and endearing pride in its own formularity. These were the type of conventionally perfect hits that pop stars much bigger than Jepsen pay millions to have written for them, and Emotion gave the impression that Jepsen, who cowrites all her own songs, could toss them off in her sleep.
Emotion turned Carly Rae Jepsen into a folk hero.
And yet, despite massive institutional support (Jepsen previously shared a manager, Scooter Braun, with Justin Bieber and Grande), a music video featuring Tom Hanks, and widespread critical adoration, Emotion flopped by traditional pop metrics. The album sold only 16,000 copies in the US in its first week (Adele’s 25, for comparison, set a record by selling more than 3 million). Jepsen wasn’t especially concerned — “I feel quite happy with how the record's done,” she told BuzzFeed that year — but Braun publicly voiced his disappointment, and many onlookers might have expected that commercial failure to all but sink Jepsen’s career.
Instead, it reinvented her. Glowing reviews led to internet word of mouth, which led to memes, social media buzz, and, eventually, the intense devotion of fans who felt let in on a very enjoyable secret. Over the six months following the album’s release and dismissal by the Popular Music Industrial Complex, Emotion had found a finite but worshipful flock. In turn, Jepsen went from playing New York City’s 1,000-capacity Irving Plaza in September 2015 to selling out that city’s Terminal 5, a venue three times the size, in March 2016.
Emotion turned Carly Rae Jepsen into a folk hero, a title unimaginable during the nine-week run of “Call Me Maybe” at No. 1. In fact, in spite of the brazen mainstream-ness of its musical content, the album inadvertently established Jepsen as almost underground — a criminally underrated gem only the savviest pop music connoisseurs appreciated, and whom gay men, always the champions of misunderstood women written off by broader popular culture, could call their own. In was an unexpected turn, but one Jepsen seemed to embrace. As Carrie Battan wrote for the New Yorker at the time, “Jepsen, the woman behind one of the biggest songs of this century, now resembles someone whom she never had the opportunity to become at the beginning: an indie darling.”
Her “flop”-iness, it seems, only increased devotion among in-the-know fans. She was something to be cherished and protected from a world who clearly didn’t get it. Moreover, her rejection by the mainstream also gave cover to fans who might shy away from the stylings of a Mars or Swift to enjoy what was essentially the same type of Coachella-headlining pop, relocated to a grimy club stage. Jepsen’s devotion to making top-grade classic pop might not have made her an arena headliner, but it granted her something valuable that often eludes far bigger stars: respect.
Emotion’s shift from potential megastar-maker to cult phenomenon was a benchmark in the proliferation of micro pop stardom, and foreshadowed the way classic pop has been pushed to the sidelines by hip-hop and its offspring in the last four years. But it by no means started the movement. In the aughts, as the music industry transitioned from the tried-and-true factory line of record labels and radio stations to the more egalitarian environment of the internet, a fracture began to emerge between Pop Music, the genre, and popular music. It was against this backdrop that the Swedish pop singer Robyn emerged as the blueprint of a new brand of niche pop stardom.
While Robyn had landed herself a pair of Max Martin–produced Top 10 hits in the late ’90s, she had faded into relative obscurity by the mid-2000s. But between the hooky electropop of her self-titled 2005 album and her pure pop masterpiece Body Talk in 2010, a buzz among critics and her small, fervent fanbase reached a fever pitch: “Why isn’t Robyn a superstar?!”
Body Talk, a three-part mini album series, burst with the light EDM flourishes and pummeling pop hooks that were saturating US radio at the time. Songs like “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” were largely of a piece with hits like Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” And yet, Body Talk went nearly unnoticed by mainstream audiences in the US. These songs may have been just as accessible as Perry’s and Gaga’s, and at least as good, but something about Robyn’s slightly off-kilter Nordic presentation or her unconventional career arc failed to click with radio programmers and culture writ large.
Robyn located the same niche and notably queer audience that Jepsen uncovered five years later.
Robyn, though, eventually found her footing and began to thrive as a cult icon, and her career began to operate more like that of an indie rock artist. She toured extensively and, thanks to critical adoration, savvy viral music videos, a memorable scene in Girls, and the power of the internet to usurp more traditional gatekeepers, she located the same niche and notably queer audience that Jepsen uncovered five years later.
As a result, Robyn became the coolest pop star of her era, a singer who made classic pop music but did so with the artistic credibility afforded to those adored by Pitchfork and ignored by Z100. Since then, she has doubled down on her antihero status, spending much of the last decade releasing quirky, experimental EPs and taking an unprecedented eight years between Body Talk and its follow-up, last year’s Honey.
That’s the kind of break that would tank the career of a traditional big-tent pop star, grasping at the next radio hit. But for Robyn, despite not charting on the Hot 100 since the late 90s — and Honey trading the pop euphoria of Body Talk for something smaller and more remote — it culminated in a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden this year, a feat once reserved for artists who’ve sold 100 times as many records as she has.
Robyn’s cult status cast a long shadow on the generation of pop artists who followed in her wake. Many of Robyn’s progeny, among them Marina and the Diamonds, Little Boots, and Tove Lo, launched their careers hoping to become the next Gaga, pumping out potential hits by the same producers who drove her (and Perry, and Swift) to the top of the charts — only to fall back on the more roundabout Robyn career model once that attempt at chart topping failed.
By the time Jepsen released Emotion in 2015, however, even the sturdiest pop stars were beginning to falter. A series of old-guard superstars — Gaga, Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Kesha among them — all released albums in the second half of the 2010s which saw steep declines in sales and singles success. As Spotify rose to prominence, its younger-skewing user base proved less enraptured with the establishment, machine-produced pop of yore. Instead, they gravitated toward hip-hop, trap, and a more dour, homespun genre mishmash sometimes referred to as “Spotifycore.” This shift elevated songs like Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and XXXtentacion’s “Sad” to No. 1, and made stars out of vaguely genreless, drowsy singer-songwriters like Khalid. Swift, meanwhile, once seen as modern popular music’s Mount Rushmore, saw her 2017 album Reputation underperform.
This environment has made micro pop stardom, once a fallback alternative to traditional superstardom, the new normal.
This environment has made micro pop stardom, once a fallback alternative to traditional superstardom, the new normal for many aspiring performers. The British singer and songwriter Charli XCX hit No. 1 in 2014, singing the hook of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and No. 8 soon after with her own single “Boom Clap,” but struggled to follow up those successes. After the release of her 2015 album, Sucker, XCX abandoned her pursuit of mainstream stardom, instead teaming up with avant-pop collective PC Music to produce some of the most thrillingly strange and forward-thinking pop music of the decade in her subsequent mixtapes, 2017’s #1 Angel and Pop 2. And like Jepsen, XCX’s lack of pandering to radio and trendy Spotify playlists made her a beloved niche sensation without ever charting again in the US.
The same could be said for Lizzo, who rose from unknown internet rapper to body-positive Instagram hero before ever placing a single on the Hot 100. Or Troye Sivan, whose last album sold meagerly but who nonetheless booked a starring role in a Golden Globe–nominated film and sold out shows at Radio City Music Hall. Or Kim Petras, who, in lieu of a record deal or a proper album, has released a steady drip of singles over the last two years which play like No. 1 smashes in gay clubs across the country (I know because I DJ in them). Or Kacey Musgraves, a rare country-leaning artist with an ardent gay fanbase whose 2018 album Golden Hour sold modestly, but rode acclaim to an Album of the Year Grammy this year.
Indeed, Jepsen’s Dedicated lands in a very different world than Emotion did four years ago. In 2019, most pop artists have adapted to the road paved by her and Robyn, building small but sturdy careers on the margins and embracing their counterculture status. Those who haven’t, like Swift, may have to become content playing second fiddle to meme rapper Lil Nas X.
With all that in mind, Jepsen’s new collection feels a little betwixt and between, torn between doubling down on the proudly, expertly conventional music of Emotion and taking a musical leap forward. On the one hand, there are anonymous EDM/’80s hybrids like “Now That I Found You” and “Party for One,” B+ grade Emotion leftovers that are gleefully exuberant but firmly in Jepsen’s comfort zone. On the other, there’s the lite disco pastiche of “Julien,” the dub flourishes on “I’ll Be Your Girl,” and “Want You in My Room,” a late-’90s teen pop tribute that could have been a second smash for that era’s one-hit-wonder girl group, B*Witched (Jepsen should 100% cover this song). This all constitutes a body of work that feels transitional, a collection of immensely pleasurable ideas without a central thesis rather than a true artistic statement.
But more pertinently, while lacking the filler-free transcendence of Emotion, this new album makes very few concessions to the prevailing sounds of 2019. By and large, Jepsen’s stuck to her muse, working the pristine pop prowess she perfected four years ago even when this feels radical in the context of 2019’s musical climate. It would be hard, for instance, to picture any of these songs sporting a Drake feature.
While this means none of Dedicated’s singles have charted, fan reaction has been largely positive, as have critics, and Jepsen seems comfortable with where she sits in the landscape. As she told the Guardian earlier this month, “I’m more confident in my weirdness now.” In a micro pop world, weirdness is perfectly suitable for a pop star. And while proudly uncommercial eccentricity might be an ironic fit for pop music, once named for its inherent popularity, it seems to be doing just fine for Carly Rae Jepsen. ●
DJ Louie XIV is a New York–based DJ, writer, and actor. Louie has been a fixture in New York nightlife for the past decade and spins regularly at New York City’s premiere venues and clubs, as well as in major cities across the country and world. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post.
Jepsen is no longer managed by Scooter Braun; a previous version of this story said he was currently her manager.